Football memories: Who were we? Bulldogs!

September 3, 2010

Since my return to Edmonton, I’ve started reading the Calgary Herald as I walk home from work.

Herald photo (Bernie Morrison at right).

It may be an odd habit and an even odder sight (as I narrowly dodge a lamp post). But I grew up devouring the sports section of the Journal’s sister paper and never stopped cheering for the Flames and the Stamps. And there’s a convenient stack of papers on the way out of the newsroom.

This week, I was reading about the Stamps when I saw a picture of former linebacker Bernie Morrison. The Stamps are honouring Mr. Morrison, placing him on the ‘Wall of Fame’ along with Alondra and Will Johnson.

Bernie Morrison was one of a few ex-Stampeders who would come to NW Calgary’s Sir Winston Churchill high school each day to coach the junior football team in the mid-90s. Morrison coached linebackers, while our D-Line coach was the gentlemanly John Helton, another Stampeder Wall-of-Famer and #12 on TSN’s Top 50 CFL Players of all time.

Back then, I was an extremely shy 140 pound kid who liked playing sports. When I entered into high school, my friends and I decided to try out for football.

“You’ll never make it,” said my big brother. Thanks for that, bro.

I showed up on the first day wearing soccer cleats instead of football shoes. When I picked my helmet, I took an old one with a long grill — the old punters helmet (bad choice). I figured it would just be fun to see how I stacked up against others. Astonishingly, cut after cut, I managed to make the team, though most of my friends didn’t. I’m not judging the coaching staff, but they actually let me start at outside linebacker.

My memories of Bernie Morrison were of a guy who’d show up to practice about half an hour late — as soon as he could after work (in real estate? in insurance). Of the linebacker coaches, he was the good cop who gave us motivational speeches. Our other linebacker coach was the bad cop who would grab my face mask, cock an eye at me, and yell, “Contain, Witt, contain!!”

I don’t remember too much of Morrison. He was an impeccable dresser with massive arms. He didn’t say much to us individually, but would teach us the finer points of the game. In particular, I remember him teaching us techniques to ‘swim’ past the O-line.

I also remember one of the speeches he gave right before one of our playoff games. It went something like this:

“We need to get mean. Go out tonight and take a walk. Think about the game. Kick a dog if you have to. And if that doesn’t work, squeeze your left nut!”

It was fun to be part of something, but I never had the killer instinct to get mean. I certainly never kicked any dogs (or squeezed anything). I learned a lesson about football: I’m not that guy. And I think my coaches figured that out as well.

But looking back, I’m really thankful I got to play. It was great exercise — besides rugby and soccer, I have never run so much in my life. I was glad to be a part of something as a fledgling high school kid. It meant that despite my shyness, despite my reservations, I could actually contribute in a small way. And I could hold my head up as I walked through the halls.

So here’s a big thanks to Bernie Morrison, one of those coaches who took a couple of hours each day (five days a week for 3 months!) to teach some kids the game.

Here’s a story from the Sept 28, 1993 Calgary Herald, my first few days of high school and tryouts had just ended:

Planting Seeds at the Roots

Mental alarm bells clattered in a half-dozen Calgary offices as shadows lengthened Monday afternoon.

An elite corps of volunteers took heed, and downed tools. Just about 4 o`clock. Time for practice at Sir Winston Churchill high school.

Canadian Football League Hall of Famer John Helton offered apologies, and slipped away from a business meeting.

“You just have to say: ‘Excuse me,` ” shrugged the Schenley Award-winning lineman. He didn`t even have time to change his slacks.

Ex-Stampeder linebacker Bernie Morrison ducked out on his insurance business. Another Calgary linebacking legend, teacher Jim Furlong, got held up in a school meeting before escaping.

Real estate agent Gord Stewart, who once butted heads on the line, slipped out the side door. One-time CFL running back John McCorquindale bugged out of his physical therapy lab. Ex-Stamp Art Froese passed up another hunting trip.

Even some pro teams might kill to attract such a brain trust, if they could afford it.

But cash can`t buy what Churchill Bulldogs` football coach Greg Watson has in the bank — 1,500 volunteer coaching hours from six men with something substantial to offer 98 junior and senior ball players.

“I`ve got so many good coaches,” cackled Watson with a wink, “I can float. I`m nothing but a gofer out there.”

More seriously, the parents and kids of Churchill can only gain from Watson`s recruiting gifts, and the honest wish of six ex-pros to pass something worthwhile to fresh blood.

“I love the break,” admitted Morrison, still trim five years after leaving the game. “It`s just good being out on the field with enthusiastic people.

“After 15 years in football, it`s like you go through a withdrawal,” he said. “It`s a tough world out there. I`ve got something I believe I can give these kids.”

Big-name coaching help has become a tradition at Churchill, since Watson got an offer he couldn`t refuse from ex-quarterback Pete Ohler.

Hall of Famer Wayne Harris had sons at Churchill, so he was a natural. Since then, Watson and his paid assistants — they include Forrest Kennerd, brother of ex-placekicker Trevor — have pitched their pals and contacts.

Furlong met a Churchill track coach during a distance run. Froese, Stewart and McCorquindale had kids in Churchill athletics, and Stewart drafted Morrison. Helton was recruited through the Kennerds.

“It`s a joy to watch them progress,” said Stewart, silencing his belt pager, and indicating the juniors.

“We don`t holler and scold. Just pat `em on the back, and they`ll go out and bust their butts for you.”

Wearing dress shoes and pants, Helton watched the 14- and 15-year-old players.

He`d like to hone their football skills, and emphasize life skills, too.

“They don`t know what a defensive tackle is, or a slant pattern,” he grinned. “We`ve got to speak their language. When the team, as a unit, does its job, everybody wins.

“I tell `em: ‘That`s what life is. Sometimes bad things are going to happen, but you pick yourself up and go again.` “

According to one mother, an impact has been made.

Because of band and other commitments, her son decided to quit football. But he quoted his guest coaches in an English essay, and his parent took note.

“Was I impressed by his growth,” she wrote in gratitude. “My heartfelt thanks for your caring and sportsmanship that so obviously were transmitted to someone who didn`t stay to make the team.”

Those who stuck around won`t do badly, either.


Louie: An appreciation

August 28, 2010

Since I entered this world, I have been a fan of television.

To paraphrase the immortal words of Alan Thicke, I’d take the good, I’d take the bad, I’d take them both, and what have you. There was nothing I wouldn’t watch: CBC’s The Edison Twins, Sledge Hammer, Kid Street, ALF (both live action and cartoon form). I even remember the show before Degrassi TNG, before Degrassi High, even before Degrassi Jr. HighDegrassi Street. Awful, awful stuff.

But somewhere along the way, I lost my connection with the old cathode ray tube. I grew up a little, or so I thought, putting aside childish televised amusement for books and social activities. I became one of those ‘I don’t even own a TV’ guys, though I wasn’t the obnoxious kind that advertises it loudly.

I blame TV too. TV didn’t hold up its end of the bargain: The Simpsons stopped being funny. The fourth wall of Larry Sanders and the Newsroom came tumbling down. Futurama was cancelled, and I was left with virtually nothing worth watching.

But something has recently happened. TV came back.

Witness comedian Louie C.K.’s brilliant anti-comedy, Louie. And no, it’s not to be mistaken for Lucky Louie, his slightly unfortunate short lived sitcom. Louie is kind of like Seinfeld, if Seinfeld was on HBO and in desperate need of anti-depressants. Or if Curb Your Enthusiasm mated with the Sarah Silverman Program.

In this clip, Louie is cast against his will in a remake of the Godfather, starring and directed by Matthew Broderick:

That’s pretty much the only clip I can screen in good conscience on this site. And if that clip doesn’t scare or mystify you, you should check it out.

Louie is the best comedy show I’ve seen in ages. It’s dark. It’s edgy. It’s entirely uncomfortable. It’s decidedly not family viewing. But man, is it good television.


On guns and numbers

August 20, 2010

Sometimes stories don’t make it into the papers. For good reasons.

Photo by Akash_Kurdekar (flickr cc)

Earlier this week, I worked on a story about the gun registry. We received an interesting news release touting an Edmonton police officer whose informal survey showed that 92 per cent of police officers don’t support the registry, running counter to virtually all official policing organizations in the country.

My interview with the officer was enjoyable: a super friendly cop with lots of policing experience (11 years patrolling + 11 years in criminal investigations) and an opinion on gun registration. He acknowledged other perspectives and offered no conspiracy theories. The only problem was his survey — it more closely resembled an online poll than it did representative data. While working on the story mid-afternoon, I was unable to get a voice adequately countering his perspective. We ultimately decided not to run the story, though I thought it might deserve a place here.


Late last spring, Edmonton police Const. Randy Kuntz decided to test a hunch.

Kuntz, a former patrolling officer who now works in criminal investigations at Edmonton’s southwest division, wondered about how many police officers supported gun registration.

Photo by Colchu (flickr cc)

Kuntz only expected 200 replied, but gathered 2,631 responses from every province and territory in Canada over a fourteen-month period. Roughly 92 per cent – 2,410 – of respondents responded negatively.

Kuntz admits the results are less than rigorous, but says the results match his policing experience.

“It’s about as unscientific as one can get,” said Kuntz. “But pretty soon it started looking like a lot of guys don’t agree with the system, which is contradictory to what the association of chiefs of police are saying.”

The survey results come in the midst of a political debate over the effectiveness of the long-gun registry. On Wednesday, RCMP Chief Supt. Marty Cheliak, a vocal supporter of the registry, was replaced and placed on leave from the national police force. The move to replace Cheliak has drawn widespread criticism, coming just a few weeks before Parliament is set to debate a Conservative private member’s bill to scrap it.

Cheliak was actually slated to appear in Edmonton on Monday at the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police Conference as one of three presenters on a national firearms strategy. While the session will still take place, Cheliak won’t be there.

The embattled long-gun registry has received overwhelming support from the policing community, including the chiefs of police, the  Canadian Police Association, and the Canadian Association of Police Boards. A joint statement by the organizations released in May notes the database costs only $4.1 million to operate and helps police in investigations and court proceedings. The registry was accessed over four million times last year.

For Kuntz, the timing of the survey results is not so much about the politics but about the effectiveness of the registry on the pavement. Kuntz’s beef is that the registry doesn’t account for the actual location of weapons. A registered gun owner, he says, can legally lend his weapon to anyone with a valid license for the firearm.

Kuntz has only accessed the registry once in his entire career, when someone wanted to donate a gun, and worries about young officers might might gain a false sense of security from the database.

“As far of the actual use it gets, it’s kind of useless,” said Kuntz. “It’s kind of like the TV channel around Christmas where they show burning logs in the fire.”


Clark Pinnock (1937-2010)

August 18, 2010

Long before my days as a journalist, I was a student of theology. In retrospect, it was partly due to growing up in an evangelical Baptist home, and partly because of my need to understand how thinking works. It’s often intuitive and often counter-intuitive.

Theology — talk about God — is a demanding intellectual discipline, requiring philosophical acumen, interpretive rigour, historical precision, and an insatiable curiosity to probe some of the greatest minds in history. It is also an exciting set of questions: Who is God? What is the meaning of meaning? How do you think faithfully?

Theology is also a discipline that teaches about patterns of thought. Your future shapes your present. Your understanding of God affects your humanity. Your place in the world determines your way of interpreting that world. Salvation is inseparable from your actions, and vice versa (for it all). It’s all interconnected, a web and a matrix. Theology gives you a sense of the beauty of thought, and how the questions you ask have been asked before and will be asked again.

In those days, I cast about for intellectual role models who were faithful to the tradition that I loved and that shaped me, yet who exemplified curiosity and a willingness to change.

Clark Pinnock died from a heart attack on Sunday. He was probably the most important theologian to hail from Canada since Bernard Lonergan. Pinnock was an intellectual pilgrim. Raised a liberal, he became an evangelical. Becoming a Calvinist, he morphed into an Arminian. He was a truly open soul, entering into dialogue with all kinds of thought and all kinds of people. His name was also anathema in many places.

I never actually met Pinnock, but his books were lovely. Flame of Love, Pinnock’s theology of the Holy Spirit, is prayerful and heartfelt. Tracking the Maze, Pinnock’s exploration of the future of modern theology, was irenic and balanced. And The Openness of God pushed boundaries.

Close friends of mine at Regent College took his summer school class in 2002 and spoke of his kindness, as well as his distracting habit of making some sort of clicking noise while deep in thought. Sadly, that was just before the final chapter of his life, marked by the long, dark descent into Alzheimer’s.

Requiescat In Pace



Anne Rice and J-Roc

August 13, 2010

I just heard Anne Rice being interviewed on CBC’s Q with guest host Jonathan Torrens (of Street Cents fame).

If you hadn’t heard, Rice recently updated her facebook status to say, “In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian.”

It’s an interesting statement for a lot of reasons: not only because Rice is a public figure who has now had a very public conversion and un-conversion, but because she left Christianity ‘in the name of Christ.’

Rice maintains she still prays and reads the Bible, believes in God and the divinity of Jesus. She’s just uncomfortable with a lot of political goings-on within the Catholic Church. She says she had to leave for the sake of her personal integrity. Rice is especially livid about Christian opposition to gay marriage; it’s a smokescreen, she says, for the fact that Christians won’t face the fact that there are a lot of highly moral homosexuals (and various other people) out there. She found herself cringing whenever the Church took a political stance.

And while Rice sounds overwhelmingly Protestant (almost positively glowingly pietistic, apart from the gay marriage part), she clearly isn’t about to head down to join the local Moravian Brethren. She’s going solo.

It’s a fascinating place for a person to end up. Many will say Rice can’t have her cake and eat it too. But she’s undoubtedly done a lot of personal reflection and has her reasons.

Listen to Torren’s interview, however, and you’ll sense a hint of glee and triumph in his voice not suited for this interview. It’s as if he hasn’t considered the underlying biographical question: what would compel someone to come to Christianity in the first place?


On Horse Stories

August 5, 2010

Early in my oh-so-young journalism career, I learned a very valuable lesson: animal stories are dynamite.

I first met Pearl about an hour before her surgery.

My earliest realization of this nugget came during an internship at the Edmonton Journal in Christmas 2008. A pair of abandoned horses were found buried in snow near Renshaw mountain (west of Jasper), and a group of local volunteers from McBride, BC, worked tirelessly to free the animals.

The story had a happy ending. The horses were adopted and recently walked in McBride’s town parade. And I got an amazing clipping: an exclusive interview with the Edmonton lawyer who had left the animals during a fall trip.

That story has been with me ever since. A large number of visitors still come to my website looking for information about the case. It’s also given me a glimmer of recognition during job interviews. And one of these days, I’ll get out there and meet Belle, Sundance, and a few of the people I talked to that Christmas.

I also jump at the chance to write about animals: the passion they inspire, their connection with their owners, and how a simple story about an animal tells a lot about a community.

I’ve recently become the Journal’s crime reporter, meaning I rarely get to tackle animal stories anymore. Last week, however, I was handed another horse story. It was a fascinating one.

Pearl is a 8- or 9-year-old mare that was rescued last winter from neglected and dire conditions at a ranch near Carrot Creek. She was placed with Sherwood Park’s Rescue 100 Horses Foundation, a group that takes on horses seized by Alberta SPCA.

Pearl had a large hole in her face. We’re not sure how she got it, but the hole was substantial. You could look right into her sinus. And the group responsible for taking Pearl in and nursing her back to health raised money for surgery to fix her face.

I went out last Friday to see Pearl get the surgery to fix the wound. The day was fascinating – I had no idea what horse surgery looks like – but it’s an amazing thing. Since there was little to do but watch what was going on, I ended up shooting a video of the preparation and earliest parts of the surgery with my Canon G11 camera.


The 1,000 Mile Marriage (Part 3 of 3)

July 27, 2010

This is part 3 of a 3 part feature article I wrote last fall for a class with David Beers. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.

Technology is no panacea for a commuting-crazy culture.

Every techno-advancement comes with utopian promises. Skype, a Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) service used for video phone calls, pledges to “set your conversations free,” or at least nearly. The main page of their website features a man and a woman embracing at an airport – they’re connected, see – and all for the low price of mere bandwidth.

But technology also pushes people apart. A high-tech global economy means increased job specialization. Just like going 150 kilometres for a perfect match in love, workers go farther to find a perfect match with an employer. The trouble happens when getting down to trying to balance it all.

Photo by Austrini (Flickr cc)

Technology can’t be trusted to solve commuter woes since it’s the root cause. Beyond the existential choice to advance my career, the reason individuals commute across the country really comes down to one thing.

“Because they can,” says Gordon price, a former Vancouver city councillor who directs Simon Fraser University’s urban planning and sustainable development program. “People are trying things out because these options exist.”

Price sees commuter marriage as a “real aberration” of what he calls “motordom,” Motordom is built on technology and the false assumption of nearly free transportation. Lives, in turn, are constructed on road accessibility, a calculation of the trade-off between distance and quality of life, or where they can commute and afford a mortgage. The more people on the roads, the more congestion creates demand for bigger and wider roads. The bigger the road, the further out of town the commute takes. It makes heads spin and cities massive.

Commuter marriages are based on similar algebra: quality of life – distance and time. While the average commuter will tolerate a trip of up to roughly 40 minutes, commuter marriages just come up with a bigger number and a different way of eliminating the remainder. In a sense, we’re all commuters, Price says. Because we can.

Motordom is often blamed for congestion, sprawl and blight. But Price identifies another problem – ballooning infrastructure costs – which assume continual growth, cheap service land, and secure energy. Whatever you think of motordom, the fundamental question is whether it’s infrastructure is sustainable.

“Can government keep doing that?” Price asks. “I think the odds are practically zero.”

Sprawl aside, Price is a fan of the possibilities of technology. Advances in telecommunications are on the cusp of providing corporations a virtual face-to-face alternative to moving employees across the globe.

“The technology is getting good enough,” Price says, that long-distance commuting “will be increasingly offset by the quality of the telecommunications.”

But even if video-conferencing is embraced wholeheartedly in the corporate world, it won’t be the death of the commute. As long as families are able, they will still plant themselves within an affordable 40 minute radius of their other destinations. Because they can.

Photo by Khairil Zafri (Flickr cc)

It may be driven by planes, and not cars, but one of the hidden costs of commuter marriage is carbon emissions.

The weekly activity of flying has an enormous ecological impact. According to the International Civil Aviation Organization carbon calculator, the aviation regulator of the United Nations, Wilson’s weekly flight from Edmonton to Toronto will consume an average of 8,631 kilograms of fuel, generating 243.09 kilograms of CO2 per passenger. If she makes the trip forty times over the course of her year in Toronto, that’s a whopping 19.5 metric tons of greenhouse gases just to go to work. The average Canadian, already the eighth worst generator of CO2, generates an average of 16 metric tons each year.

But that’s a conservative estimate. The numbers at the carbon offset dealing website Less.ca are less rosy. Ranked by the David Suzuki Foundation as the best dealer, Less estimates Wilson’s weekly commute creates nearly 80 tons of CO2, costing a whopping $3,733.20 to offset.

Wilson can’t help but think about the environmental impact of her weekly airplane trips. She even catches herself rationalizing her trips.

“You start thinking, ‘Even if I wasn’t on the plane, there’s still a hundred other people on the plane and the flight would still go if I wasn’t there,’” laughs Wilson.

Like most people, the Wilsons try to make environmentally-friendly choices, even if they know it doesn’t balance their current lifestyle: Smart car, fervent recycling. But Wilson doesn’t buy into any delusions of cosmic balance: the decision to commute is to lessen the psychological toll.

“It sure does bug me, but man oh man, I can’t not come home,” says Wilson.


The elevator doors chime and open at the Oakville retirement home. When Alison Wilson meets one of her elderly neighbours, she often finds herself explaining why she’s there.

“They always ask who I’m visiting,” laughs Wilson. When she replies, she is met with frowns and furrowed brows.

“You should see the look on their faces,” Wilson says, breaking into her impression of a sweet old grandmother. “They’re like, ‘Why would you want to live with us old people?’ They don’t get it.”

Wilson’s own assessment of the commuter life is mixed. She loves her job, loves her company, and sees a bright future not far away. The emotional and relational toll, on the other hand, knocks her squarely into mundane reality. After eight months in an old folks home, she sounds world-weary and worn-out.

“I’m not as driven to progress my career if I have to sacrifice this much,” says Wilson. “I would never leave Edmonton again. If that hinders my chances of getting promoted, so be it. It’s really not worth it.”

But Wilson tries not to let it get her down. Like many commuters, she has an exit strategy in place. Eight months in, there’s just over two years left. She’s already counting down.

“You’ve got to justify it to yourself every time you get kind of down or upset you’re doing this and you’re away from your family,” she says.

“It is only temporary, you know?”